Great food and the environment

This post is part of a series that I’m writing on what we think great food is all about.

Great food is good for the environment. It protects biodiversity, promotes soil health, reduces climate change, and more. Efforts to do this protection in farming are described by such terms as sustainability, organic growing, agro-ecology, and the one most currently in vogue, 'regenerative agriculture'. All these philosophies have similar goals, of growing food while reducing and preventing damage wherever possible, and even replenishing/regenerating the natural world. In North America, most of this work is about healing past harms. We’ve eroded away topsoil, drained swamps, cut down the forests, straightened creeks, and killed off the native flora and fauna. This was all done in the name of ’taming the wilderness’ in order to replace native ecosystems with landscapes that will produce lots of food for us. So good stewardship very often involves healing these traumas by rebuilding healthy soil life, bringing back ‘wild’ edge areas where native species can flourish while intermixed with our food production, growing mixed species of crops instead of monocultures, and stopping (or at least greatly reducing) the use of pesticides that destroy biodiversity. In other less developed areas of the world, say the Amazon rainforest, we instead need to stop cutting down virgin primary forests, and do better about managing land that has already been cleared. There will of course always be tradeoffs, as any land being used for agriculture can’t also be the native ecosystem it replaced. So we are instead looking for a way to balance human needs for food with allowing space for native ecosystems to still function well.

From the time that we took over its care, our farm was already a relatively healthy landscape of forested hills, grassy fields, and creek valleys. So our first principle is to do no harm in any of those already healthy ecosystems. We keep our cattle far from the water, the easily eroded stream banks, and other sensitive areas. All of our more intensive farming practices are concentrated to a small space near our buildings where we can make sure to control things like erosion. We don't use pesticides in the orchard or gardens, which allows for an incredibly rich variety of life to exist there, from microscopic life, to insects, to birds in the fruit trees. Yes, we end up sharing some of our crop with all of these residents that aren't commonly allowed to stay in an orchard, but we also have much lower inputs which make up for those losses. An orchard buzzing with life is a much nicer place to visit than one where everything except the trees has been killed.

So all of the above discussion revolves around land management, but there are a lot of parts of the food system that aren’t directly on our farm. For food to be great, it also has to try to account for these off-farm aspects. The way that scientists do this is with something called ‘life cycle assessment’ (see here or here for more information). Therefore, we need to consider not only what is happening directly on our farm, but also the inputs coming onto the farm (equipment, fuels, seeds, etc.) as well as outputs (waste products, sales and distribution impacts, etc.). If you’ve ever heard of ‘food miles’, this is how far the food travels from where it is produced to where it is consumed, and is a part of that life cycle analysis. We don’t currently have the time to do a rigorous analysis like this for our entire farm activities, but we do everything we can to reduce our off-farm impacts too. We try to be responsible about choosing our inputs and minimizing how much of them that we need, and having our farm so close to those eating our food really cuts down on the effects of distribution.

Cattle - can they be a part of a regenerative farm landscape?

I think that beef raised the right way can be a great part of our food system and I’m going to tell you why. But if you’ve been paying attention to sustainability and food discussions in the last few years in the media, you will have heard a lot about how ‘bad’ beef is. The complaints about beef are that it is inefficient in that it uses too much land and too much water, as well as producing too much methane (a potent greenhouse gas). As beef cattle are conventionally raised and finished, I largely agree with these critiques. I also agree with the general sentiment that North Americans should eat less meat overall. As a producer of meat, that sounds like a strange thing to say, but I see our meats as a part of a balanced diet rather than the primary food that someone consumes.

I would argue that the problem is not cattle, but how they are being raised. Cutting down rainforest so that Brazil can have more grasslands for beef is a terrible idea, and so is packing thousands of cattle together to be force-fed grain in a feedlot. Raised in the right places and in the right way, beef can be a very responsible part of our diets. Here in the Gatineau Hills, we have the right kind of climate for raising beef. We have a very plentiful supply of water, grasses grow easily and for free, and keeping large grazing animals is one of the only ways to maintain open fields here. This land pushes quickly towards forest, it 'wants' to be a forest. But at the same time keeping some areas open increases habitat diversity in the region, which does quite a lot to increase local biodiversity (we’ve worked with a local wildlife project on meadowlarks and bobolinks, which are prairie-living birds that are endangered in Quebec). If you’ve come to visit our farm or others like it throughout the Outaouais, you’ll see that they are a patchwork of fields and forest, swamps, flat lands, rivers and hills. There is a tremendous amount of life on these farms, and more variety than in large continuous forest stands. We need unbroken forest too, but the patchwork of fields in the Hills are a welcome addition to the landscape.

And what about greenhouse gases and climate change? Cows do produce a lot of  the greenhouse gas methane, mostly burping as they digest all that grass. But this is no different from all the other large herbivores, the bison, deer, antelope, even elephants. In natural balanced ecosystems, plant-eating animals are nearly always a part of the picture. In a system in balance, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by these animals is matched by the amounts of carbon going into the ground and soil life, from the manure and plant regrowth following grazing. In a well managed rotational grazing system, farmers can even get to the point where the amount of carbon going into the ground is greater than the animals are emitting. And what about the alternative to cows eating grass, of instead finishing them on grains like soy and corn? If we grow those crops to feed to cows, they have huge inputs of their own, of fertilizers, pesticides, diesel, and any deterioration of the land where those crops are being grown.

As I write this, scientists are still duking it out in the literature. One side publishes an article that shows beef has high emissions, the next pens a response that good grass-fed beef has negative emissions. As they finish sorting it out with further research in the coming years, I am open to changing my mind. But for now I think that the evidence is in favour of well raised grass-fed beef being a good thing for climate conscious eaters to put on their plates. If you’d like to read into the literature yourself, I’d suggest that you start with these links from NPR and Civil Eats. If you want to really dig into the science of how scientists make their arguments about the impacts of greenhouse gases, try reading this.